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IT staffing models: Versatility versus specialization

Christina Torode, Editorial Director

Successful IT staffing models require the acquisition of strategic talent, but as CIOs juggle performance goals based on business value

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and revenue creation, it takes extra finesse to develop the right people, the ones who are able to create products and services customers want to use.

And who are the right people, exactly?

"I'd like to find people who can wear many hats, have broad skill sets and can jump from job to job," said Rick Stegmann, corporate director of IT at the nonprofit Center for Internet Security in East Greenbush, N.Y. "That can be hard, depending on the task. I can find application developers that have design skills, but do they understand how people are going to interact with what they are developing? It's not just about coding."

"People are not interchangeable parts," said Frank Wander, CIO at Guardian Life Insurance Co.  Legacy applications make the New York-based business hum, and as a result, he needs specialists with deep industry knowledge. "People are the furthest thing from an interchangeable part when you are in the area of knowledge work. It is the amount of intimate knowledge that they've acquired over time, how well they are able to fit into your social working environment, that makes them productive and nonproductive," he said.

Meanwhile, James Williams' IT staffing model develops potential candidates' skills before they even enter the workforce. He sponsors research at local universities -- for example, on a radar laser that can differentiate wind turbines from aircrafts.

"This gets the students interested in working for you," said Williams, a director with a federal government agency. "You get fabulous candidates and we also get research done." Through this strategy, he is able to identify candidates who can solve real-world business problems.

Breaking IT staffing models' bad habits

CIOs need to break the grip of unsustainable IT staffing models. Three out of 10 global 2,000 companies will miss public business targets for growth driven by information and technology because of IT workforce shortfalls through 2016, according to Diane Morello, Gartner Inc. managing vice president and fellow in the consultancy's leadership and innovation group.

"This is a systemic and persistent issue driven by structural changes going on in the business and [by] dependencies on technology that are supported by an antiquated view of how the [IT] workforce is brought in [and] managed and how work is allocated," Morello said during a presentation at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando.

Two fatal flaws in the IT staffing model are companies' tendency to hire specialists and to just "throw more bodies" at new projects, Morello said. Those mistakes create a situation where CIOs have to staff up in a market in which qualified people are hard to find.

Instead, CIOs should approach the IT staffing model dilemma by introducing such new computing models as Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service, and focusing on the infrastructure areas that support business value creation. Morello also stresses differentiation -- giving higher priority to the products and services that external, not internal, customers deem valuable.

"If you know what you have to hold onto -- if it's apps, forecasting of product growth, or people who can orchestrate and manage your vast network of service providers -- you staff around that," Morello said.

What a company needs to hold onto will vary, of course, but it should favor areas that give it a competitive edge --  logistics, analytics or new application development, for example -- and get rid of technology areas that hold little value, according to Morello. For example, it could use portfolio management to shed the applications that aren't used by many people.

Creating a versatile IT staffing model

Many IT staffing models tend to lean toward specialists, but CIOs would be well advised to stop attaching IT staff members to specific long-terms projects and consider developing multitaskers.

"I think it would be more satisfying for [the IT staff] if we move them around so that they can work on many projects, versus [working on] SAP for the next 35 years," said Scott Millis, vice president of IT strategic services and chief strategy officer at McAfee Inc. "I see a sea change. A need for more people around different technologies."

I can find application developers that have design skills, but do they understand how people are going to interact with what they are developing?

Rick Stegmann, corporate director of IT, Center for Internet Security

One way to shape a versatile workforce is through "self-shaping teams", Morello said. Such teams come together, not by people raising their hands to volunteer but by peers selecting peers to join a project.

CIOs also can match assignments and projects to the particular "passion points" of each team member. Morello cites Carolyn Sanders, CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration's regions and centers operations, as an IT executive who does this. Sanders looks for people who ask probing questions, and she focuses on "geek translators."Specifically, she seeks out people with interests she can redeploy in different areas, Morello said. "These are people who can go talk to the pilots, administrators or people in airports, and uncover what kinds of information they need and how they need to see it," she said. "They can then go back to the [application] developers and help translate user needs into the developer's language."

Above all, CIOs should look for workforce versatility in their ideal candidates, Morello said. Versatilists (a term coined by Gartner) are people with an aptitude for learning new skills -- not necessarily technical ones. These are people who have an aptitude for business, understand various roles in the company, understand the industry, and possess political savvy and leadership initiative.

Within today's corporate IT landscape of constrained budgets and hiring austerity, CIOs are leaning toward doing much with little and investing in their talent. With a few crucial tweaks to their IT staffing models, CIOs can juggle intricate legacy functions while keeping an eye on product development and delivering value to the business.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.